Annika Huff sat alone in the empty, blistering hot bedroom of her sex trafficker. The air conditioning unit was broken on this summer day in Las Vegas.
Huff was badly beaten and malnourished, weighing just 93 pounds.
A firefighter walked through the house and made eye contact with Huff before her trafficker closed the door. She inched closer to that door, hoping the firefighter would come back, but he never did.
“He looked like he didn’t know what to make of the situation or didn't know what to do about it,” Huff said.
While Metro’s vice unit specializes in human trafficking, many of the first responders — patrol officers, paramedics, and firefighters — lack the in-depth training needed to identify and intervene, said Elynne Greene, the victims services and human trafficking manager for Metro.
In Huff’s case, that lack of training caused her to endure several more weeks of abuse. On two other occasions, she says police “never separated me from my trafficker or the girl I was trafficked with enough for them to have a conversation with me where I would have disclosed anything.”
One nonprofit organization is hoping to change that.
Advocacy group iEmpathize is teaching local first responders how to intervene in situations where they suspect someone is being trafficked but are unsure how to intervene because they’re not law enforcement and don’t want to further endanger the victim.
Matthew Driscoll, a Las Vegas Fire & Rescue paramedic, recalled several situations in the back of his ambulance when a victim appeared to be in danger. However, he was uncertain how to help because he didn’t have any specific training.
“My chief said that he has been on the department for 23 years and has never received training on human trafficking,” Driscoll said.
Years after she escaped, Huff stood in front of a group of first responders this month at an iEmpathize training session to share her story.
“The last two months of my trafficking situation, which is when I meet all three first responders, I was at the point where if I had an option of running, if I felt safe enough where I could get away, I would have been willing,” Huff said.
Driscoll believed he transported three patients to the hospital who may have been victims of human trafficking. After going through this training his suspicions were validated.
The training taught him how to not only identify the physical signs of human trafficking — bruises and broken bones in various stages of healing — but also the mental signs of trauma like lack of eye contact, gaps in memory or inconsistencies in their stories.
“It takes a village, it takes people working together,” Greene said. “We’re not asking general first responders and those people in the community to evaluate if someone is truly a victim. We want to identify potential victims and go from there.”
The program is also made available to other professions that may interact with potential trafficking victims such as truck drivers, bus drivers, social workers and teachers.
“There’s a real, practical way to make a difference and it can be done if you’re a truck driver [or] a school teacher,” said Brad Riley, president and founder of iEmpathize. “We’re not asking teachers to go to truck lots. We’re not asking truck drivers to go to schools. We’re not asking first responders to be police officers. We’re saying what is it in your space that you can do to make a difference.”
In addition to educating on how to identify signs of human trafficking, the program also teaches those who interact with victims to be more empathetic.
“Sadly, as first responders, we see bad stuff all the time and sometimes our heart gets cold,” Driscoll said. “I think with this effort, having Annika onstage and training us about her story, it can open our eyes to empathy, reignite that empathy in our hearts.”